Driving Over Dooley by Bob Valiant

It was a warm summer day in 1951. The car was a 1938 Chevy and the road was the worst in our area. Seven miles of gravel with hairpin turns, no guardrail and a long way down. Alton said, “You drive.” It was my first time behind the wheel.

I can still picture a good portion of that drive over Dooley Mountain although the road was paved and straightened many years ago. I can easily call up some of the turns, the open area at the summit, and many more details along the way. The feeling of relief as I made it around the final hairpin is still vivid in my memory. Can you call up your “first time behind the wheel,” first time on a plane or first time on a ski lift? Why is it so easy to remember these “peak” experiences and so hard to remember classroom lessons or material you have read in the past?
Here are some characteristics of day-to-day classroom lessons and some characteristics of peak experiences that may give us a clue to the answer.

Logical, Sequential
Gradual Accumulation of Data
Neutral Emotional Content
Work with Symbols

Random, Surprising
Rapid Assimilation of Varied Data
Strong Emotion
Work with Real Stuff

If you are able to recall any specific classroom lessons from your own days as a student, there is a strong chance that the memorable lessons have several elements of the “Peak Experience” column.

We have learned that the brain receives input from the environment and attempts to make sense of it. The amount of incoming data is huge so the brain appears to sample the signals looking for anomalies and/or discrepancies that warn of a change in status. When they occur, these out-of-the-ordinary situations call for focused attention, an increase in the emotional level and involvement of much of the body as the individual prepares to deal with the impending event. These kinds of changes appear to increase the chances for dendrite growth, hence memory. Truly memorable events tend to have many “hooks,” some emotional and some physiological, that trigger the recollection of the original occurrence.

It would seem useful to share memorable classroom lessons and try to identify the activities and elements of the environment that contributed to your “Dooley Mountain” experience. If you will send me your examples as Comments to this article they will be available to everyone who reads the article. As we design our own lessons we can begin to add bits of “Dooley” to the lives of our students.

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